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Gay men and abuse: What we need to know about violence in gay relationships

, by Enrique Vallejo

What comes to mind when you think of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence (IPV)? Is it the classic scenario of a male batterer and female survivor? Maybe a husband or boyfriend who has had too much to drink and flies off the handle at his partner—leaving her with obvious physical signs of abuse?

Enrique Vallejo

Enrique Vallejo

What about when both partners are men? In general, IPV among men does not rank very highly as a concern for most people—if it is even acknowledged at all. What about our culture makes it difficult to think about intimate partner violence between two men?

As part of a research project for my Master’s program, I started to investigate this issue by interviewing clinicians who help gay men experiencing intimate partner violence. Here’s what I learned about what partner violence looks like in gay relationships, what we as a society are doing (and not doing) to recognize and address the issue, and what gay men who experience partner violence should know.

How common is it? 

Researchers believe that violence in same-sex relationships happens at about the same rate as violence in heterosexual relationships.

A review by the Williams Institute in 2015 reported that the lifetime prevalence of intimate partner violence among gay men has ranged from 25.2% to 33.3%. The prevalence of partner violence in the past year was 12.1%. (These numbers may seem high, but keep in mind that the researchers were counting “partners” as everyone from hookups, to ongoing play buddies, to boyfriends, to husbands and everyone in between.)

Another research study by Stephenson and colleagues asked a sample of men who have sex with men, recruited online, about partner violence. Most of the respondents were young (between the ages of 18 and 24), white, and self-identified as gay. Among these respondents, the researchers found that almost 12% of the sample reported physical violence from a male partner, and 4% reported coerced sex (rape). About 7% reported that they had perpetrated physical violence toward a male partner, and less than 1% reported raping a male partner.

Why don’t we hear about domestic or partner violence among gay men?

As a society, we take domestic violence against heterosexual women fairly seriously, as we should. If a woman goes to her healthcare provider with bruises or broken bones, she’s going to get questions about her relationship. She’s going to be asked if someone is hitting her.

It’s different for men, including gay men. To a certain extent, there’s a perception that it’s normal for men to engage in physical violence with one another. There’s also a perception that men should be able to defend themselves physically against each other, so violence that happens within a relationship is somehow not as “serious” as violence that may happen between a man and a woman. Many survivors can feel shame and stigma as a result.

Sometimes gay men experiencing violence even have difficulty identifying themselves as “survivors” of intimate partner violence. I asked service providers if the survivors they’ve seen have had insight about if they are experiencing intimate partner violence. Universally, they said “no.” Gay men might have partners that are manipulative, controlling, and physically abusive—and still not see it as intimate partner violence. Gay men tend to have even less insight when the abuse is primarily mental or emotional as opposed to physical.

One misconception that can prevent male survivors from getting appropriate care and services is the myth of “mutual abuse.” Some people have an idea that for male couples, the roles of “survivor” and “abuser” are not static or unidirectional—that the person being abused oftentimes also becomes the abuser. This is because same-sex survivors are more likely, on average, to fight back against their batterers than heterosexual survivors. Judges, police, and others (including gay men experiencing abuse themselves) may assume that this constitutes mutual abuse, a conclusion that is not supported by most service providers.

Most service providers are emphatic that the idea of mutual abuse only serves to undercut the seriousness of IPV in same-sex couples. This myth obscures the dynamic of power and control one partner has over the other—which is at the heart of all intimate partner violence. It leads judges, police officers and others to not take allegations of abuse seriously, and it results in gay men not seeking help from the police if they’ve been abused. Or, not being able to obtain a restraining order if they do seek help. All of this seems to be especially true for survivors who are people of color.

Many providers talked about how the idea of being a survivor of intimate partner violence has become feminized. My respondents who have worked with various populations reported that men who have experienced abuse are less likely to want to adopt the label of “survivor” or take that on as part of their permanent identities than their female counterparts. This can be yet another obstacle to seeking help and staying engaged in services.

Finally, there are far fewer agencies and resources for gay male survivors of intimate partner violence. Most gay men who experience IPV do not seek out IPV-specific services initially but might instead work with agencies that serve the gay community in general, substance use treatment facilities, or HIV services. This makes it imperative that agencies and providers screen for intimate partner violence among the gay men that they serve as part of their normal assessment process.

What should gay men who experience violence know? 

Clinicians who help gay men experiencing intimate partner violence oftentimes focus on safety planning. That includes things like identifying red flags that may signal when things are escalating with a partner. If things escalate, it’s great to have a small bag packed that you can grab on the way out the door. Plan ahead if you can so you have someplace to stay if you need to crash overnight on a friend’s couch. Identify potential allies and use a code word to let them know when you are in danger.

If and when to leave a partner is ultimately up to the survivor, which is why clinicians don’t seem to focus on persuading gay men to end relationships when and if violence occurs. Only you can decide when it’s right to end a relationship.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of places that serve as shelters for men experiencing domestic abuse like there are for women [despite the non-discrimination provision of the Violence Against Women (VAWA) Reauthorization Act of 2013]. As a result, many gay male survivors don’t really consider moving into a shelter as an option. But there are resources available, which I’ll list at the end of this article.

Resources

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.7233 for information and referrals.

Find additional safety planning information available from FORGE here.

Access Center for Family Law and Self-Help Service offers walk-in legal help for people who need to file a domestic/dating violence restraining order. Visit http://www.sfsuperiorcourt.org/self-help or call 415-551-5880.

Bay Area Legal Aid offers legal advice pertaining to partner violence. Visit https://baylegal.org/ or call 800-551-5554.

Communities United Against Violence is a San Francisco-based agency that provides support groups and advocacy based peer support counseling to LGBTQ survivors of intimate partner violence. Visit http://www.cuav.org/ or call 415-333-4357.

Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse is a San Mateo County agency serving intimate partner violence survivors. The organization serves all communities and is inclusive of LGBTQ survivors and men. Services include: crisis intervention (including a shelter/safe house), family support services and legal services. Visit https://www.corasupport.org/ or call 1-800-300-1080.

The Love is Respect Hotline is an LGBTQ-friendly hotline for people who have been sexually assaulted or who are in an abusive relationship. Call 1-866-331-9474 or visit www.loveisrespect.org.   

Lyric is a San Francisco-based center for LGBTQQ youth, and offers mental and medical health services for young queer people. Visit http://lyric.org/ or call 415-703-6153.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline will help refer you to a local rape crisis center. Call 1-800-656-4673 or visit https://ohl.rainn.org/online/.

The Network La Red serves LGBTQ, poly and kink/BDSM survivors of BDSM with support in English and Spanish. Call 617-742-4911 or visit www.tnlr.org/en/.   

Enrique Vallejo is a clinical intern with the Stonewall Project at San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

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